Ridgefield silent at school budget hearing; increase now below four percent
No voice was raised for or against the $102 million proposed school budget at a second public hearing session Monday night, Feb. 10. But the spending increase proposed by the school administration appears to have been whittled down below four percent.
“We’re in the public hearing,” school board Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis said at the meeting’s start. “Any public comment?”
There was none — not a person came forward to speak, the sign-up sheets were blank, no one uttered a word.
The quiet night Monday followed a Saturday morning public hearing session Feb. 1 at which only one person had spoken on the budget.
The school board did learn a few things, and raised some issues in discussion.
“I have some very good news, “ Superintendent Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote told the board.
The 2020-21 budget as initially put together — requiring a 4.11 percent increase from the current year’s spending — is based on numerous projections, she said, and as time goes by those numbers become more solid.
“We do have some hard numbers for two areas,” Paddyfote said.
The administration had firmed up costs associated with employee pensions and other post-employment benefits (called “OPEB” by budget insiders, and including retirees’ health care).
“Fortunately, it will go down,” Paddyfote said, “and bring that total increase down to 3.7 percent.”
How many people?
The school board’s budget discussion was wide-ranging Monday night.
“There’s not much new in this budget,” said board member Jonathan Steckler. “It’s last year’s budget with two more people.”
The $102-million proposal, up about $4 million from this year’s $98 million in school spending, includes two new positions — a $60,000 a year social worker at the high school and an $85,000 a year director of security in the central office.
They would be added to a current year staff of 734 positions, including 451 teachers, 129 paraprofessional educators, 28 administrators, 33 secretaries, 53 custodians, 24 nurses and others.
Board member Sean McEvoy questioned the staffing level of 17 in the technology department.
“We have three people writing curriculum, and 17 people running around fixing Chromebooks,” he said, referencing the laptop computers used in many classrooms.
The breakdown of people in the technology department, according to the administration, is: one director of technology; one secretary; five technicians for nine schools, the central office and the alternative school; one help desk coordinator; two network administrators; one application support specialist; three data specialists; two technology integraters; and one registrar (a position formerly in the business office).
McEvoy asked what progress the administration had made in comparing Ridgefield’s technology staff to that of other school districts.
“Some have more,” Paddyfote said.
But she added that the research isn’t complete yet. “We’re doing it per district, based on enrollment and staffing,” she said.
Board member Liz Floegel asked if the administration had looked into sharing the technology workload with the town’s IT department.
“That’ll definitely be something for Dr. Da Silva,” said interim superintendent Paddyfote, referring to the new Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva who is expected to succeed her later this spring.
Floegel also raised a facilities repair concern.
“There’s a giant crack in the foundation of one of our middle schools,” she said. “That’s going to be a big fix … We can’t ignore that for the rest of our lives.”
Some of the board’s talk concerned possibly adding math coaches. While adding six, one for each elementary school, would work best in the administration’s view, board members wondered about adding a smaller math coach program. This might take the shape of adding three math coaches, and having each one serve two elementary schools.
“Six would be optimal,” Paddyfote said. “Three would be beneficial.”
It would cost money, of course.
“I don’t know that the budget can afford six math coaches,” Chairwoman Stamatis said.
Board member Carina Borgia-Drake wondered about running a pilot program on the math coaches.
“I don’t know what three math coaches would bring the budget to,” she said.
“If you added three math coaches, it would come to 3.96 (percent),” Paddyfote said.
Borgia-Drake also questioned the roughly $155,000 in the budget — similar to the current year’s spending — allocated for professional development in literacy, provided to teachers by Columbia Teachers College.
“We’ve done a lot of professional development in this area, and we’ve done it over a long time,” Borgia-Drake said. “...At what point do you let it go? We’d have money we might be able to spend elsewhere.”
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Craig Creller said the professional development for teachers in literacy had brought tangible results. He said scores on reading tests stack up well with other school systems both statewide and in DRG-A, the “demographic reference group” of similar affluent Fairfield County suburbs that the state groups Ridgefield with for comparison purposes.
“We’re third in DRG-A and 15th in the state,” Creller said.
Board member Rachel Ruggeri spoke up in support of spending on basics such as instructional materials and books.
She praised Ridgefield’s teachers and “the passion that they exude in the classroom” to the benefit of students.
“The very least we can do is fund them the books and materials they need,” Ruggeri said.
Eventually, the board got down to discussing numbers — particularly that 4.11 percent increase that was lowered to 3.7 percent by the pension and post-employment benefits cost coming in below earlier projections.
“Say we were to add three math coaches, 3.96 percent would be the revised increase,” Stamatis said.
“Do we feel we need to be at a certain number?” she asked.
“I’m comfortable with that number,” said Borgia-Drake.
The school board is planning a final discussion and vote on the budget at its Feb. 24 meeting.
Then the school board’s requested education budget will go on to the Board of Finance, which will combine it with the selectmen’s request for spending by town departments, probably make some adjustments, and come up with 2020-21 budget and tax rate to send to voters in the May referendum.
“There’s probably a number the Board of Finance’s has in their head,” said Floegel.
“I don’t think we’ve heard anything from the Board of Finance on what they think the town can afford,” said Steckler.
That — what the finance board feels the town could afford — is usually the key factor in its decision, as opposed to focusing mostly on what the schools need, Steckler said.
“This is pretty bare bones in terms of what we need,” said board member Kathleen Holz. “And we’re here to do what’s best for the children.”